Grid Failure Survival Guide
OR Be The Ants, Not The Grasshopper
Disaster Planning covers situations such as grid failure when the unexpected or unprecedented happens in real life. The East Coast knows hurricanes and other weather events can wreak havoc. California is well versed in earthquake and wildfire issues. Flooding is a constant threat in the Plains, along with severe weather. For planning purposes, we generalize on the effect, not the cause. Today, by popular demand, we discuss how to survive a short and long-term power grid failure.
Let’s admit it upfront. The electrical grid system in the United States is antiquated and mostly unprotected. Short of assuming the system has come under attack from nefarious threat actors and increasing everyone’s already high levels of anxiety. We shall assume the culprit of our outage is natural. Let’s say the sun delivers a huge solar flare, and the systems are overloaded, much like what happened in Quebec in 1989 or the Northeast blackout of 2003. Electricity is out no matter how many times you flip the switch up and down. Now what?
How Bad Is It? – A solar flare has been known to cause power and communications disruptions, especially when associated with electromagnetic storms in Earth’s upper atmosphere. Radio blackouts are common in heavy solar periods. One effect the sun can have with such storms is an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). An EMP not only will fry electrical grids and substations, but a strong enough EMP could kill cars, mobile phones, and basic survival electronics, like flashlights and pacemakers!
How Long Could It Last? – This is the bad part. According to estimates dating back to the mid-2010s, the transformers used at substations had an 18-month lead time, as the coils were hand-wound and came from outside the United States. Then the shortages from the pandemic came along. There are no valid estimates of how long it would take to receive replacement transformers. A total catastrophic failure may take years, yes YEARS, to resolve.
Seriously?! – Yes. Granted, that would be an unprecedented situation, but that’s what Disaster Planning is all about. It is like prepping without resorting to living underground in a modified storage container. You need a backup plan to your backup plan, just in case. If you want to be fully protected, the recommendation is to keep a Faraday bag in your car with shortwave radios, flashlights, first aid kit, non-perishable food, cash, fire starter, compass, thermal blankets, knife, water, and a comfortable pair of walking/hiking shoes. If the cars don’t move, you will need to walk. Your Tesla will be useless. Be prepared.
Situational Awareness – GPS won’t help you. In fact, if the sun is the culprit, satellites may be the first to go. Always understand where home is in relation to your position, and keep a compass in your emergency supplies. You won’t want to follow the Interstate. Terrain, weather, and people will factor into your route. There may be safety in numbers, but crowds can assume a mob mentality without warning.
Other Mobile Concerns – A common question is what happens to a plane. Plane electronics are mostly protected as they are often exposed to higher solar radiation. However, if the power goes on a plane, they are still mechanically driven. Plus, the Ram Air Tool (RAT) is a turbine built into commercial planes that can produce enough electricity to keep the plane flying and landing with electronic assistance.
At The Office – We hear you complaining about snacks in the break room. Maybe we would have more if you didn’t hoard all the Twinkies. This is why we can’t have nice things. Disaster Planning assumes a situation may occur where the environment is not safe for employees to leave the building. While many locations have backup power for IT devices and generators for building support systems, those are only meant for short-term outages. Office managers must maintain an emergency supply of food, water, first aid, and blankets for all employees for at least 72 hours. Offices should ensure employees are trained on the disaster recovery plan and have basic first-aid skills.
At Home – Maintain a stockpile of certain basic, non-perishable food items. The best and healthiest options are dry rice and canned beans. It’s not a sizzling steak, but it will keep you alive. Count on four (4) servings per pound of rice. Freeze-dried meals are typically full of sodium and preservatives and are very expensive. Plan for two servings of rice and beans per day per individual. Canned meats are also a great addition, along with corn, green beans, peas, carrots, potatoes, and other canned items. Water is also a concern, but storing water can be difficult. Medications may be difficult to come by as well.
How To Cook – Urban and suburban areas usually have natural gas and water provided. When the power goes, eventually, these two will stop flowing. Rural areas have wells or receive water from water towers, both of which eventually require pumps to move the water. Always keep a way to cook, even if it’s a fire pit in the backyard. Your grill will only work as long as you have propane or charcoal. Consider a multi-fuel stove that can work with liquid cooking gas, propane, or wood. Dutch ovens are an excellent tool once mastered and can work with any heat source.
Generators – Assuming the generator still works, tri-fuel units allow you to run on gasoline, propane, and natural gas. Again, you need fuel to make electricity unless you use some form of wind, solar, or water turbine generator and batteries. Natural electricity isn’t for everyone as it’s not cheap and requires space. You don’t need an electric hot plate to cook, but it is an option. Microwaves are definitely out!
Little Power Moves – Let’s assume cell towers are still functioning, as are mobile phones. This may become your only source of communication. How do you keep your phone charged? You could use your car, but eventually, the gas will run out. There are many mobile solar-powered units on the market for the outdoors. I recommend always keeping several USB battery packs available and charged. This will ease the stress of a low battery warning. But just in case, always keep your car at least half full, if you can. You never know when you may need to leave.
Emergency Plan – If you don’t already have one, create an emergency plan with your family, apartment complex, neighbors, community, office, business, city, and county. Yes, YOU need to have a plan and a backup. The state and federal governments will be overwhelmed with this problem, and you will be on your own. Talk to others to ensure they also take the potential issue seriously. The last thing a community needs is desperate people who played like a grasshopper all summer long.
Long-Term Planning – Nearly all money is electronic. If electricity is off, credit/debit cards and pay apps are useless. Always keep some cold hard cash with you and more hidden at home. Supply chains will falter fast, as we’ve seen with the pandemic. The ability to buy items at the store will be limited by supply, staff, and general public order. I’m not saying to plant a garden in the neighborhood soccer field or stockpile weapons, but a week-long outage will crack our instant gratification society. Discretion regarding your resources is always warranted. Plan as a community to help and protect one another. Sadly, one person in ten will simply plan to take what someone else has instead of preparing for themselves, like a politician.
When The Lights Go Out – DON’T PANIC! The most important thing you can do is stay calm. After the power is out for more than 30 seconds, fill every bathtub and sink in the house with water. If you have uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) connected to electronic devices, turn them off. You may need that 30 minutes of electricity later. The refrigerator will only maintain its cool for a day max. The freezer may give you a few days. Plan to eat all the perishable food right away. Communication in the first hour is key as most cell towers will only have enough generator fuel to last two days.
Resources – I’m not some crazy guy on the corner calling for the end of the world, at least not this week. Check out Ready.gov or cdph.ca.gov for Federal and State planning guides. You will be surprised that I am but a single voice in the choir singing that you must be prepared.
I hope a situation like this never happens. I pray if it does, it’s temporary, quickly resolved, and people have properly planned. Unfortunately, that is not reality, and, as you can tell, I have given this serious thought. If you take nothing from this, at the very least, buy a few extra cans of food and powdered milk every time you go to the store. You can’t eat toilet paper.